All of the Small Axe films have centred on the intimate personal truths of Black people living in the UK. The focus has been very precise and very local and this has certainly been one of the series strengths.
It is interesting then that this last instalment begins in outer space. The contrast works brilliantly, showing the infinite ambition of people living in a racist society that denies them the most basic rights; respect, freedom, opportunities and, specifically in this case, education. It is also another aspect that demands that all five films are viewed as an anthology.
There are threads that are subtly revisited throughout these movies but the most obvious is perhaps the use of music. Take the incident here where young Kingsley, forced to attend a ‘special’ school more because of the colour of his skin than his academic ability, listens to a shaky performance of The Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun by a teacher who can’t be bothered to think of any other way of occupying, let alone educating, the children. We get to hear the whole song and watch Kingsley fall asleep so as to dull the monotony and boredom. This is a million miles away from the lengthy rendition of Silly Games by Janet Kay in the second film Lovers Rock that brings everyone alive and fills them with passion. They seem like entirely unrelated episodes from two separate movies but you need to have seen both to get the full power of the each of the two moments.
There have been many incidents of upsetting racism in all of the Small Axe films, often involving violence, but there is something different about seeing children as the victims of prejudice. It isn’t just from his peers either, there are some shocking words from those that are supposed to be caring for Kingsley. What comes across most in Education is how no one, irrelevant of age, was exempt from these attitudes in Britain in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
What Education does seem to have is an optimistic ending. It isn’t that Kingsley’s school suddenly takes him back but he does start to get the chance to learn. What is the lesson here for us though, that any victory is a small win and people should settle for what they can get? Nope, that’s been true for too long and needs to be challenged.
It is of note that none of the stories told are contemporary but what comes through strongly is the idea that many of us didn’t know that all of the things depicted were going on then, so what don’t we see now?
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe project has been a real success artistically but it always had bigger aims so I hope it has managed to change perspectives too.